If the yardstick for measuring the quality of a musical is the length of time you keep humming away at the music afterwards, then Grease is one of the best musicals I have seen. Toe tapping, singing along and even dancing is encouraged, and the party atmosphere permeates through every facet of the production.
Grease, in its 1978 film incarnation, not only provided the soundtrack of a generation, but also explored the emotional rollercoaster that is high school – an adolescent transformation of believable characters, accompanied by a battery of hit songs. The stage musical, marketed as the “Number One Party Musical”, capitalises on the rich musical heritage, rather than the story.
Of course, the major story points remain intact: Rydell High class of ’59 meets the new girl, Sandy (Gretel Scarlett), who falls for greaser Danny (Rob Mills) over the summer break. Love complications ensue and they eventually sing a famous song together. Grease is a fast paced mega-mix musical, where dialogue, character development and emotion are seemingly little more than a bridge to the next musical number. The darkness and internal struggles that are so prominent in the movie are replaced by gimmicks and cheap laughs – and for some, that’s more than enough.
The music is quite exceptional (thankfully the lady sitting behind me singing along to every song had quite a voice!). Gretel Scarlett brought a familiar innocence to Sandy, and Rob Mills’ rendition of ‘Sandy’ was a highlight. Unfortunately, their romantic chemistry left something to be desired.
As is the case with many touring productions, the production value is enormous. The set is spectacular, the choreography is superb and, while you don’t travel on an emotional journey, the high energy still renders it nigh impossible to leave the theatre without a smile. But in a show that shocked audiences with its audacity and raunchiness in the 1970s, the current incarnation has been diluted into a glam musical that bypasses significant issues (teenage pregnancy and peer pressure – to name a few) in favour of gimmicks and gags. The message that resonates – change yourself to conform to society – is not something that fits with present values and yet, the high polish production seems to celebrate it. Directorial choices evidently favour music over the story however increased character development, and greater exploration of teen angst would have brought the production back to its original rawness and communicated with the audience on a much higher level.
The stage craft in Kenickie’s (Stephen Mahy) Grease Lightning was magic and the dance sequence in John Paul Young’s ‘Born To Hand Jive’ had the audience on the edge of their seats. Bert Newton’s radio DJ Vince Fontaine successfully tied the various elements of the production together, but it was Todd McKenney’s Teen Angel that was the show-stopper.
Lucy Maunder’s Rizzo injected some much-needed emotion into the production. Her rendition of ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ left the audience in silence and was, for me, the hands down highlight of the show. Maunder’s performance is most worthy of her Helpmann Award nomination.
Responses to the Grease the musical will be divided. Some viewers (likely film purists and seasoned theatre goers) will form the opinion that the musical is an emotionless shell, devoid of the detail and depth of the film. Others will relish the opportunity to revive and relive the great musical numbers, while singing and dancing along. Either way, it is essential to remember that this production is not simply stage reconstruction of the film. Grease is marketed as the “number one party musical”. In this, it most definitely succeeds.
I’m not sure whether stimulating audiences to return home to watch the movie is positive or negative outcome of Grease the musical. All I know is that I was more culturally satiated through the film.